The winds off England’s Cornish coast were howling at gale force last Dec. 19. The 1,400-ton merchant ship Union Star, flying Irish colors on her maiden voyage, was struggling in 50-foot seas. Then her engines went dead. The ship, carrying a crew of four plus Capt. Henry Morton, his wife and two stepdaughters, began to drift toward the rocky shore. A nearby tugboat offered to help, but only in exchange for salvage rights (full or part ownership of vessel and cargo). Morton refused, perhaps still hoping to restart his engines. Within 90 minutes a Royal Navy helicopter attempted to haul up the eight people with a winch, but was driven off when winds reached 90 knots. By this time Captain Morton had called the tug, but it was no longer able to approach. Only one chance remained—a lifeboat rescue.
So an emergency call went out to the nearby fishing village of Mousehole (pop. 1,200) and to the citizen members of its Royal National Lifeboat Institution. This is a nautical version of an American volunteer fire department. In the past 21 years volunteers at Mousehole’s Penlee Lifeboat Station have rescued 91 seafarers. But this attempt, six days before Christmas, ended in a tragedy that has stirred all England.
It began at 7:30 p.m. when Trevelyan Richards, 56, coxswain of the lifeboat Solomon Browne, fired a rocket that exploded over the town. The signal summoned his entire force of 16 volunteers. Richards picked seven men, ranging in age from 22 to 46, to join him on the mission. (By tradition, in very bad weather no two members of the same family are allowed on a rescue.) “It was just like any other launch,” remembers Neil Brockman, 17, whose father, Nigel, was aboard. “They were all joking and laughing when they went out. They couldn’t be serious about anything.”
When the 47-foot lifeboat reached the Union Star, the stricken vessel was temporarily secured by its anchor. But within minutes the anchor line apparently snapped. Mountainous waves turned the ship broadside, pounding it closer and closer to the rocks. With the vessel only 100 yards offshore, the Solomon Browne moved in close—only to be picked up by a wave, like a cork, and dropped onto the deck of the Union Star. The lifeboat slipped off into the churning sea but returned again, this time successfully picking up four people. By then the winds were so treacherous that the Royal Navy helicopter hovering nearby was forced to withdraw. The last view its pilot had was of the Solomon Browne attempting to make another pass at the ship. The lifeboat crew members, declared the helicopter pilot later, were “the bravest men I have ever seen.”
No one can say with certainty what happened next. There were no witnesses—and no survivors. The Union Star capsized, then was tossed on the rocks. The Solomon Browne was smashed to kindling. Only eight of the 16 bodies have been found—four from the Solomon Browne. The grieving citizens of Mousehole pulled the wreckage of the lifeboat onto a nearby slip. Among the first items found by Jim Madron, a fishing vessel skipper, was his son Stephen’s hat.
Mousehole’s eight victims left five women widowed and 12 children fatherless. For days the town mourned. Along the picturesque harbor, villagers gathered in small groups to stare out at the gray sea. In the pubs men looked blankly into their pints of ale. No children were seen at play. “When I walked along the harbor that morning,” said Del Johnson, honorary secretary of the lifeboat station, “men would simply clasp my hand, without saying a word, in total shock.”
His eyes red-rimmed and puffy, Fred Wallis, 47, a former London publican, spoke of his son, Gary, the youngest of the Solomon Browne crew. “I don’t mind admitting that I used to be sick as a pig every time he went out—even on a summer’s day,” Wallis said. “But Gary was completely fearless. He was very modest, proud of the lifeboat and its crew. He kept a scrapbook of every single thing they did. The three years he served with them were the happiest years of his life. He said to me once, ‘Dad, in London I was nothing. Down here I’m somebody.’ ”
In the aftermath of the tragedy, all of England mourned with the people of Mousehole (pronounced “Mouse-all”). Donation boxes—part of a drive to provide for the lifeboatmen’s dependents—appeared in pubs, clubs and offices. With an estimated one in three Englishmen contributing, the fund swelled to more than $5 million. When Inland Revenue, the English equivalent of the IRS, threatened to garnishee a large share of the money, public outrage was so strong that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had her Attorney General find a loophole that spared the survivors and contributors from taxes.
The grieving townspeople at first planned to dispense with their annual public light display at Christmas but relented after the victims’ families protested on behalf of Mousehole’s children. But at 8:30 every evening the lights were turned off save for an illuminated cross on a hillside overlooking the village.
Meanwhile the men of Mousehole still face the sea that is both their provider and their deadly foe. When the call went out for replacements for the lifeboat squad, the roster was quickly filled. One volunteer was Graham Inman, a 19-year-old fisherman. “I felt it was my duty,” he said. “Those men lost their lives helping people. I wouldn’t like to think there was no one to help me if I got stuck out there.” As the waves beat against the Cornwall coast, the people were left to contemplate the grim motto of the town’s fishing society: “Gather ye the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.”